Campus Scenes

Failing Grade

Don't know much about history? ISI's survey of American universities shows you're not alone.

By 11.1.07

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On the 150th anniversary of Princeton University, in 1896, Woodrow Wilson extolled the virtues of his college: "Princeton was founded upon the very eve of the stirring changes which put the revolutionary drama on the stage -- not to breed politicians, but to give young men such training as, it might be hoped, would fit them handsomely for the pulpit and for the grave duties of citizens and neighbors." Wilson's speech, "Princeton in the Nation's Service," codified the long-held view that America's colleges "should serve the state as its organ of recollection, [its] seat of vital memory."

But according to the Intercollegiate Studies Institute's (ISI) newest report, Failing Our Students, Failing America, American universities have failed in that mission. The 60 question survey, the ISI's second in as many years, spanned 50 colleges nationwide and over 14,000 freshmen and graduating seniors, covering basic American history and government, international relations, and the market economy. The results were disappointing.

Not one school of the 50 scored better than a D+ on the ISI study, and several -- including Cornell, Duke, Princeton, and Yale -- actually managed to decrease their students' civic knowledge. Minorities and international students were particularly underserved. Such results are problematic, given the ISI's finding that "greater learning about America goes hand-in-hand with more active citizenship."

But history Professor Joel Carpenter of Calvin College (MI) believes colleges shouldn't shoulder all the blame. Citing numerous encounters with students lacking skills typically acquired before college, he blames high schools, not colleges, for the dearth of civic knowledge. Carpenter lamented the oftentimes "remedial" purpose of the modern university.

"People aren't coming to college as well-prepared as they should be," Carpenter told TAS. "When colleges have to do the work of high schools, of course that's going to have an impact on the quality of education."

The ISI report argues the opposite. Failing Our Students reads: "Colleges stall student learning about America's history...advancing students at a slower annual rate than primary and secondary schools." In its "questions of accountability," the report lays the blame for students' lack of civic knowledge squarely at the feet of the higher education community. "Are parents and students getting their money's worth?" Are alumni and philanthropists? College trustees?

But to say that colleges just aren't teaching American history and government isn't accurate.

Take, for instance, Yale College, whose students fared third-best with an average score of 65%, but ranked 49th in "value-added" (to the tune of -3.09, which, in the ISI's cadence, makes it a "center of negative learning"). One could conclude from those numbers that Yale has no interest in teaching U.S. history.

Yale's Directed Studies department rebuts that claim. "All students enrolled in Directed Studies take three yearlong courses -- literature, philosophy, and historical and political thought -- in which they read the central texts of the Western tradition," reads the program bulletin. From antiquity to modern times, a curious student could choose to ensconce himself in the West's foundational writings. Students at the University of Texas (Austin), the University of Chicago, the University of Kansas, Providence College and others have similar options.

That colleges have the courses, and don't mandate students take them, is precisely the problem, according to Failing Our Students.

Educators agree. Said philosophy Professor Robert C. Koons of the UT-Austin, "educational professionals are professionals for a reason -- their expertise." While Koons favors the liberal arts model above the vocational training of business or engineering schools he nonetheless believes that the modern university need play a more active role in course selection.

But such an argument ignores a very real, free market issue -- namely that a top-notch education is expensive. When students pay $40,000 per year, as at the top schools, they simply don't want to be told what they may or may not take.

And if one, or even several, colleges tried to take a stand by implementing stricter curriculums, students would simply bypass them in this buyer's market. If Harvard lays out a strict core curriculum, students can choose Brown or Stanford. But open curriculum seems to come at the cost of civic education.

That's what happens, laments Professor Carpenter, when the "vegetables" of knowledge -- basic math, science, and social studies -- are cast aside for the "candy" of premature specialization and electives.

Just as no good parent would let their children eat ice cream for dinner, Carpenter believes universities shouldn't allow students to map out their own educations. That, he says, would be preferable to the current reality, when graduates emerge from campus little more than Jacks of All Trades, masters of none -- and some leave with even less knowledge than they came with.

As the old adage goes: "If you don't know where you're going, any way will get you there."

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